Tuesday, April 30, 2019

This Year's Rondo Winners Announced

The winners, runners-up, and honorary mentions in the 17th Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards have been announced and the list can be found here. Congratulations to everyone whose work was rewarded and recognized! And a big thanks to Mr. David Colton for all the hard work he puts into formally appreciating all the hard-working people who devote themselves to the field of horror and fantasy in film.

This year, I was pleased and honored to have my work on Kino Lorber's THE NIGHT STALKER and THE NIGHT STRANGLER voted Best Commentary, and I'm extremely proud to have been part of David J. Schow's team of commentators for Kino's two OUTER LIMITS box sets, whose bounty (beginning with 42 audio commentaries!) was rightly acknowledged as recognized as Best Package of DVD Extras. My thanks to Kino Lorber's Frank Tarzi and Bret Wood for involving me in these terrific projects. 

I was also surprised and delighted that Video WatchBlog placed as one of the Runners-up for Best Website, its first success in this category for a good many years. I may not be here every day, but I like to think what I deliver is cherce.

Incredible as it seems, this Best Commentary Rondo is my nineteenth, including the Hall of Fame and Legacy Awards, though there are other wins by association, as with Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning interview with Donnie Dunagan, which I published in VIDEO WATCHDOG #112, and now the OUTER LIMITS Rondo. Rondo and its supporters have been very good to me.

There is honor too in just being nominated, and I was pleased to have my SPIRITS OF THE DEAD monograph nominated for Best Book among so many other worthy projects. I knew it was a long shot, because it's a monograph - about one film - and, in this case, a film that's generally considered uneven and offbeat. For me, the book itself is my reward - I'm so pleased with it and so delighted it exists. In case you still haven't bought yours, here's a handy link to its Amazon page.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 22, 2019


Harald Reinl quoting Mario Bava in THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.

Last Saturday night, I decided to revisit Harald Reinl’s DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL (“The Snake Pit and the Pendulum,” 1968) - known here in the USA as BLOOD DEMON or by its TV title (believe it or not) THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM. As it happens, the timing was just a hair shy of sacrosanct, as the story takes place on Good Friday!

I wouldn’t call this film a masterpiece but it’s jolly good spookshow fodder, with intoxicating art direction and a wonderfully wild, nightmarish imagination. It draws from Poe, Hoffmann, Corman, Bosch, Mario Bava (in a big way), and the cinematography is recognizably the work of Ernst W. Kalinke, who also shot CASTLE OF THE CREEPING FLESH with Michel Lemoine and soon after shot MARK OF THE DEVIL. The cast - principally Christopher Lee (as the undead Count Regula), Lex Barker, and Karin Dor - is very good, the fairy tale-cum-surrealist atmosphere is relentlessly fantastic and creepy, Peter Thomas’ score is ogreish and loony, and Karl Lange (who principally plays Lee’s creepy undead henchman, revived - like Universal's Ygor - after being hanged) plays as many as three additional roles without credit: a man peering from an upstairs window in the public square, an actor in the guise of Christ carrying a cross, and a mysterious vagrant encountered in a burned-out cottage in the woods.

Karin Dor and Karl Lange.
Speaking of credits, Reinl manages to make the main title sequence - though a brazen rip-off of Mario Bava's opening sequence in BLACK SUNDAY - somewhat unnerving when it shows a sustained tracking shot of Lee, a bronze mask nailed to his face, being led through a series of corridors. The bronze mask, always central to the composition, is disturbingly fashioned in the likeness of a smiling face, and at one point shortly before the director's credit, its eyes suddenly appear to glow from within and look unwaveringly back at the viewer. It's a real goosepimpler! 

I was prompted to watch the film because of its inclusion in Severin's delightful new HEMISPHERE HORRORS box set, which features it on a bonus disc with Harold Hoffman's THE BLACK CAT (1966). The Severin presentation is a 2K presentation of two cobbled-together 16mm TV prints bearing the TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM title on a crudely inserted white card with a drippy black font. This was the only way I'd ever seen the film before, but I later discovered this version on YouTube, bearing a Troma logo (with removable subtitles, no less), which shows a properly designed title card consistent with the surrounding footage - I'm amazed this exists, yet it is rarely seen in circulating prints! The colors and clarity here are also much better than the version on the Severin disc, which basically ranks as no better than filler. 

Karin Dor and Lex Barker in the Hall of Skulls.
I didn't remember having it, but I consulted my personal catalogue and discovered that I had the EMS German DVD (which I believe may now be out of print) stashed away in my attic, with the shrink-wrap still on it! The transfer here has its problems - some aliasing and whatnot - but it is far better than the Severin presentation or any other commercial option I know about. The color here has a SUSPIRIA-like intensity at times that is completely lost in domestic versions - think Reinl must have influenced Argento on some level. The scene where Count Regula is revived and his valet Anatole warns the prisoners to look away because they mustn’t set eyes on a moment so sacred - and then we see him slowly arise and be cloaked in a silhouette cast on an ornate wall - that’s pure Mater Suspiriorum

The first third of the film is taken up with a chilling coach trip through the haunted forest in which Castle Regula is nested, and the extended set-pieces boast a pictorial audacity we might also associate with Bava; Lex Barker, as the hero, looks like he was told to watch KILL, BABY... KILL! and to reprise Giacomo Rossi Stuart’s Dr. Eswai in his comportment and every move; there is a remarkable likeness between the two. But once the characters get inside the fabulously booby-trapped castle, the imagery turns colder, weirder and more grandiose than anything Bava would do. As bold as he could be, Bava tended to be focused on the actors he chose and his camera work - the way he saw things - rather than in the sets. Working here with art directors Gabriel Zellon and Ralf Zehetbauer, Reinl proves himself a potent stylist in his own right. The forest sequences are terrific, but the scene of Karin Dor's entrapment in the castle's snake pit and the Boschian design of the pendulum room are appropriately nightmarish and memorable. At one point in the film, Christopher Lee - his blue-gray face pocked with nail marks - says, “Now my vengeance is complete!” It made me wonder how many times in his career, especially during this period what with his Dracula and Fu Manchu movies, he was called upon to reprise these very words!

The German disc also includes some nifty extras, including two Super 8 condensed versions of the film (with sound), two black-and-white German television clips of visits to the set (we get to hear portions of Barker's and Lee's interviews in English), and - for the benefit of German-speakers - a 40m audio interview with Karin Dor. The disc has an English language option that doesn't extend to the extras. By the way, you will find online some mention of other actors responsible for dubbing the dialogue of Lee and Barker, but this information pertains solely to the German track. Lee dubs his own voice in English, and I believe Barker does too. Indeed, Barker's voice - not that familiar to me - was very familiar to me as coming out of the mouths of other actors. I believe, for example, that he was the baritone responsible for dubbing Paul Naschy in COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE. 

I discovered there is a fairly detailed Wikipedia page devoted to the film in German. It includes this interesting (uncredited) sidebar on the film's symbolism: "Striking are the numerous references to Christian symbolism which, however, have been reversed in a manner corresponding to the evil character of Count Regula. Thus, on Roger's journey at the entrance of Sandertal, there is a statue resembling famous paintings in which God the Father cradles Jesus, taken down from the cross, in his arms - the so-called "Mercy Seat." It shows a man with a crown who holds a man with a loincloth and severed limbs - therefore also representing Count Regula. Count Regula wants to be resurrected on Good Friday and seeks to gain eternal life through the blood of thirteen virgins. He is also terrified of the cross. The name of Regula's castle - Andomai - recalls the sound of the term "Adonai," which is Yiddish for 'Lord.'"

It also reveals that screenwriter Manfred R. Köhler's original script title was SCHLOSS SCHRENKENSTEIN, which would translate as "Schreckenstein [Horrorstein or Terrorstein] Castle," and that cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke broke an arm while filming the forest sequence, after which he was temporarily replaced by Dieter Liphardt. Furthermore, the text offers two quotes from Christopher Lee that I find worth sharing. They were both addressed to his fan club president Gloria Lillibridge, the first in mid-1967, as the film was beginning production: "I have no idea if this movie will ever be seen outside Europe, and that may even be beneficial." And then the second, sent after the filming was completed: ""It was a lot of fun to stay in Munich and I was pleasantly surprised by what I have seen so far from the film. The colors are first class, the sets excellent and the acting performance more than adequate. Maybe the movie is not as bad as I feared."

After sharing an earlier draft of the above with followers of my Facebook page, I was surprised by how many people came forward to say that this obscure-yet-many-named German offering was a film they loved. Author and blogger Charles Lieurance told me that it was actually his favorite horror film. I was surprised by this enthusiasm, but on reflection, why not? It's high praise fairly well deserved. Like SUSPIRIA, Reinl's dark fable is garish yet remarkable, and the darker passages of Peter Thomas' score are enjoyably overbearing much as the Goblin score for SUSPIRIA is.

As far as I know, there is no Blu-ray release of DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL yet available anywhere in the world. I am aware of the German DVD I mentioned, and another DVD from (I think) a Spanish label whose language tracks are limited to Spanish and Portuguese. All of this points to a definite need for a more definitive presentation on disc, and I commend it to the usual suspects for serious consideration.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Lost Commentary

Dear Listeners,

I’ve been given clearance by Kino Lorber’s Frank Tarzi to make the following information known at this time: 

Earlier today, if you went to the website of Diabolik DVD, you might have found them soliciting pre-orders for Kino Lorber’s upcoming Blu-ray of David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY, which will be streeting on June 3. Their description of the disc's contents included mention of some enticing extras, including an hour-long interview with David Lynch, an exclusive booklet essay by Nick Pinkerton, and a NEW audio commentary by Tim Lucas. 

This was the exciting hush-hush project I mentioned on Facebook a month or so ago. The commentary was commissioned by KL and I did the work. I was honored, excited, and also a but intimidated to script and record the FIRST-EVER audio commentary for a David Lynch film on disc. 

I was extremely proud of the result too, which - despite my initial intimidation - flowed out of me like water. Bret Wood, my disc producer, told me the finished commentary was terrific. At the time these extras were planned, Universal seemed to have no problem with them; however, once the work was done (and paid for, I hasten to note), I’m told they checked their contract with the filmmaker and discovered that neither they nor their sub-licensors were allowed to include ANY extras with the release, in keeping with the wishes of Mr. Lynch. 

Therefore, I regret to inform you that - contrary to news that got out earlier today - Kino Lorber’s LOST HIGHWAY Blu-ray will feature NO extras other than a trailer. It’s the way David Lynch wants it. Of course, I’m disappointed that my and Nick’s work won’t be along for the ride - but I’m presently considering other ways of making my commentary available, perhaps as a stand-alone digital upload or in expanded book form. 

I sincerely hope this news won’t spoil anyone’s interest in the disc, which I can promise you is a magnificent HD transfer of a mind-bending film.

Tim Lucas

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Mystery of A. Louise Downe

There has been a fair amount of talk recently about Milicent Patrick, the Universal-International creative designer who was responsible for the look of several of the studio's 1950s monsters, though company policy dictated they be officially credited to Make-up Department head Bud Westmore. Patrick - apparently blackballed by Westmore when the photogenic Patrick was promoted as the creator of the Creature from the Black Lagoon - is the subject of a new book by Mallory O'Meara, THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: HOLLYWOOD MONSTERS AND THE LOST LEGACY OF MILICENT PATRICK (Hanover Square Press), and you can read her now-documented story there.
A similar case would seem to concern the woman principally known by the screen credit of A. Louise Downe. In case the name is unfamiliar to you (because she went by many), Downe was an associate of Florida-based fright firebrand Herschell Gordon Lewis (1926-2016), who - at the time of their meeting - was a maker of Sunshine State "nudie-cutie" features. He and she then embarked on the films for which Lewis remains most famous:  BLOOD FEAST (1963), TWO THOUSAND MANIACS! (1964), COLOR ME BLOOD RED (1965), and so on, through 1972's THE GORE GORE GIRLS. In other words, the foundation blocks of "gore" cinema.

So, what was Ms. Downe's role in all this? Well, according to screen credits and published news features of the time, she wrote some of them (including BLOOD FEAST, the one that started it all*), created their horrific special makeup effects, and served as Lewis' assistant director from 1967 through 1972. She was also known to play the occasional bit part. Okay, so if we remove all of those individual duties from Herschell Gordon Lewis' films, what's left? His sterling direction of actors? His mise en scène?

* It should be mentioned that the late Randy Palmer, in his 2000 book HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS: GODFATHER OF GORE (McFarland and Company), quotes Lewis as saying that he actually wrote the script but credited Downe out of noblesse oblige when she came up with the idea of having the cannibal chef Fuad Ramses concoct his "Egyptian Feasts" as a blood sacrifice to the goddess Ishtar. Despite her extensive screen credits on his work, and her high position within his companies, she barely rates another mention in the book.
Furthermore, Downe uprooted her own life (which reportedly included three grown children) to follow Lewis to Chicago when he relocated his business there in the late 1960s. Despite her distinctive position within Lewis' work and evidence of more than a decade of open interaction with the press, she has not been heard from since roughly 1972. It was in a January 16, 1972 CHICAGO TRIBUNE article about Herschell Gordon Lewis by Clifford Terry was appended with a sizable coda (see below) acknowledging Louise Downe as "the 'Sadistic Queen' of the Chicken-Skin Flick" (a reference to one of the culinary ingredients recruited for some of the imagery she had engineered for THE WIZARD OF GORE and THE GORE GORE GIRLS).

When Terry's article was carried by other papers, as soon as immediately and later through April, all references to Downe had been expunged, save for an acknowledgement of her as the author of BLOOD FEAST. After that, she seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. The IMDb claims that she and Lewis were once married, but Lewis - who was married to Margo Ellis from 1979 onward - denied this, pretty much refusing to discuss her any further. Perhaps the most interesting detail of all is that, when their partnership ended, Herschell Gordon Lewis stopped directing movies to focus on advertising, copy writing, direct mail marketing, and writing various DIY books. He would not direct another film until 2002.

So who was this woman, who effectively stopped Herschell Gordon Lewis from directing gore films at the very moment that gore in horror cinema was becoming the vogue?

Unable to sleep last night, I found reference to her while looking for something else and ended up tracing the trail of her public life as far back as the early 1950s, when she was just a schoolgirl. Here is what I found out: Though sometimes identified as "Allison Louise Downe," she was most likely born Alma Louise Downe in the late 1930s. The Downe name is consistent throughout all her nominal reinventions, even though one early newspaper profile lists her parents as "Mr. and Mrs. Fred Camp," so it seems most likely that this was the second marriage for her mother - also named Alma (hence her daughter's nickname Bunny) - who gave birth to her at a fairly young age. It was reported that she was also a cousin of the actor Scott Brady, which would also make her an equal cousin to actor Lawrence Tierney. She attended Coral Gables High School, where she proved herself an exemplary and outgoing young student, serving as Presidents of both the Speech Club and Red Cross Councils, as well as being active in the school choir. She was also her Homeroom Chaplain, as well as a member of the Future Teachers of America and other groups. She graduated Class of '55 and then attended the University of Miami, where she majored in journalism and later psychology, while also studying acting.

MIAMI NEWS, October 31, 1952.

However, between those two educational summits, a lot happened. Bunny - a redhead whose measurements were given as 35-23-35 before her HS graduation - began entering beauty contests. She was named Miss Firefighter of 1953, an honor that won her a free trip to Cuba. She was among those who competed for the 1956 crown of Miss Miami, which could have led to bigger competitions, but won only the divisional title of Miss West Miami. Judging by her frequent appearances in the pages of THE MIAMI NEWS, she was something of a publicity hound, always on hand for attractive filler like answers to questions of the moment ("Are American Girls Too Pampered?") and home recipes. Bunny didn't complete her college education - ironically, considering her later vocation, she had to drop out of pre-med because she couldn't bear to dissect dead animals. A local gossip column from June 24, 1957 mentions her founding a Coral Gables modeling agency called Mademoiselle; then a February 1958 column mention announces the closure of Mademoiselle as its founder took up work as a receptionist at WIMZ. It was in late 1957-early 1958 that she "eloped" with her high school sweetheart Lou Mertz, a fellow journalism major. Popping up in an August 12, 1958 "Merry Go Round" column, Bunny felt sufficiently publicized to offer her space to a more generously proportioned (38-22-35) blonde and brown-eyed friend named Joyce Simpson, whose "greatest wish" was to be mentioned in the column. Her marriage to Lou Mertz didn't last, and she remarried to Petrie L. Thorne in September 1959.

1959-1960 were the years when Florida-based filmmaking came into its own, especially where primitive Adults Only features were concerned. During this period, THE MIAMI NEWS reported that Bunny Downe was working as a model and living at the Gold Dust Motel while making a movie with producer Barry Mahon called NAKED ISLAND. She was quoted as having just "flipped" for someone she met during the production named "Sepi Dubronyi" - who was, in fact, the Baron Joseph "Sepy" De Bickse Dubronyi, a sculptor and all-around adventurer of the arts who dabbled in the film business (including, in later years, DEEP THROAT - in which he actually canoodles with Linda Lovelace)  and claimed such women as Anita Ekberg, Ava Gardner, and Brigitte Bardot among his conquests; he was newly divorced during this period. We may presume that Bunny's second husband fell by the wayside as she embraced the film business and the new acquaintances that came with it, as there is no further mention of him.

According to the IMDb, Bunny appeared in a number of nudie-cuties during this period: Jerald Intrator's NAUGHTY NEW YORK (1959), Barry Mahon's PAGAN ISLAND (formerly NAKED ISLAND, 1961), Doris Wishman's DIARY OF A NUDIST (1961) and BLAZE STARR GOES NUDIST (1962), and A.A. Krovek's BABES IN THE WOODS (1962). She made her first film with Herschel Gordon Lewis in 1962, playing the female leads in both NATURE'S PLAYMATES and BOING-G-G under the aliases of Vicki Miles and Vickie Miles.

With Thomas Wood (aka Rooney Kerwin) in H.G. Lewis' SCUM OF THE EARTH.
By December 13, 1963, the former Alma Downe/Bunny Downe/Alma Mertz/Alma Thorne/Vicki Miles/Vickie Miles was interviewed as Louise Downe in Herb Kelly's MIAMI NEWS column, headline: "Pretty Model in Miami Author of Bloody Movie." In the piece, the Miami native - now living in Chicago - admits to writing BLOOD FEAST in a single week and currently working on a children's script that she hopes to submit to Walt Disney. This screenplay never got made, but that same year, Vickie Miles returned in Herschell Gordon Lewis' GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BARES (1963). She was done with acting by 1966, and knuckled down to writing and working as Lewis' assistant. The scripts she is credited with writing include THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, the Birth Control drama THE GIRL THE BODY AND THE PILL, SHE DEVILS ON WHEELS (script title: THE MOTORCYCLES), and the CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT (script title: THE SMASH-IN). She took a less public approach to authoring ALLEY TRAMP (1968) and LINDA AND ABILENE (1969, scripted as ABILENE '69), but there isn't really a whole lot of story to them.

In the December 1967 issue of BACKSTAGE, Downe's official job description at Lewis' company Creative Communications, Inc. was "production manager,"  second-in-command to Lewis himself. In a March 4, 1968 piece in BOXOFFICE, Lewis referred to her as "creative director" of the company, in charge of its industrial films division. In Ruth Ratny's "Chicago Report" in the March 15, 1968 issue of BACK STAGE, Lewis anticipated that she would "add a dimension of drama to business films which is often overlooked." It was in the aftermath of this advancement that Downe began to be profiled by members of the press. On January 5, 1968, in an article titled "The Teen Counselor Who Writes Those Shocking Movie Scripts," DETROIT FREE PRESS interviewer Judy Rose revealed that Downe held a degree in psychology and had worked as a youth counselor in Florida (!), advising troubled teenage girls (!!). Though reportedly single, she had adopted three children who had become wards of the court, then in their mid- to late-teens. Other reportage from this period and later involves her in projects like SOMETHING WEIRD (1967) and THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970, when it was being filmed as THE WITCHES OF GORE with a different lead actor!), serving as Lewis' assistant, providing the celebrated gore effects, and often speaking to the press to promote them. According to John McCarty and Daniel Krogh's 1983 book THE AMAZING HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS, Louise Downe was also responsible for writing the horrific vignettes staged at the Chicago theater known as The Blood Shed in the late 1960s, which made her not only one of the very few American writers to have worked in the true tradition of the Grand Guignol - but very likely the only woman.

By September 1970, Lewis and Company were making THIS STUFF'LL KILL YA! in Oklahoma under its working title THE DEVIL WORE CLODHOPPERS. Coverage of the production appearing in THE DAILY OKLAHOMAN (September 18, 1970) identified the producers of the film as John Sezonov and his wife "Louise Downs Sezonov." One month later, THE McINTOSH COUNTY DEMOCRAT includes an update about the filming in their October 1, 1970 issue. By this town, the film had its final title - and apparently, though still shooting, it had a known 100 minute running time! The story mentions Allison Downe as associate producer and John Sezonov as production manager, but it closes with the mention that "Ultima Productions of Chicago is owned by John Sezonov and his wife, Bunny." So the Bunny nickname persisted, at least among her friends. For what it's worth, the IMDb lists Sezonov's real surname as Sezanoy - but that doesn't pull up anything in my searches.

Clearly, this was a remarkable individual - evidently born to a broken home, a self-starter, an accomplished student on many levels, an innate communicator at ease in contact with the public and the press, an entrepreneur - and also a complex young woman, someone who was able to engage with social concerns and responsibilities while working in films whose main currency was nudity and violence, both of which she personally provided. She was also, to my knowledge, the only woman to have held an executive position in a film production company in the 1960s - perhaps it wasn't seen as terribly respectable at the time, but the work she wrote and made so deliriously gruesome has somehow survived the test of a half-century of interest, and it continues to be screened to enthusiastic audiences all over the world.

If the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis are remembered for anything today - and most recently, they have been remembered to the extent of a generously annotated Blu-ray boxed set of his restored works from Arrow Video in the UK - it is for their ridiculously quotable dialogue, their absurd premises, and their disconcerting uses of history-making, taboo-shattering, brain-boggling gore. Most of these characteristics (I'll be generous by not saying "All") would fall under the job definitions of Louise Downe. Her name appears on the films, though possibly not representing her contribution in its totality - but why does any discussion of her contribution seem to have been suppressed? Why has so little credit been accorded to someone who, at the very least, was a pioneer in the realm of special makeup effects - and whose work was approximately a decade ahead of her time?

There are many possible answers to these questions, ranging from the professional to the personal. When the CHICAGO TRIBUNE's three-page profile of Herschell Gordon Lewis appeared in THE FORT LAUDERDALE NEWS the same day, its mentions of Louise Downe and her appended interview (see below) were not included. The fuller version of the main article concluded with some bickering between the two as Lewis continually derided the crude ingredients of Downe's gore effects, particularly their use of chicken skin. Downe confided to the interviewer, "You'll notice that Mr. Lewis thinks chicken skin is the Alpha and Omega of gore effects. Take it from me, it isn't. You'd think the motto of this company was 'A bowl of chicken soup will fix you right up!" It's hard to tell if this chiding was good-natured or a real bone of contention, but it certainly seems to have gone the way of the latter. Today, it is not even officially known if the former Alma Downe is alive or dead - or under what name!

Enlarge and read this rare January 16, 1972 interview with the "Sadistic Queen" of Gore - a woman who (as one Facebook friend, Robert Freese, pointed out) "was Tom Savini before Tom Savini" - and tell me her contributions to the film business, and specifically horror film history, don't bear additional investigation. It's history that may even bear rewriting.    

My thanks to Stephen Bowie and Mike McCollum for their research assistance.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.